One of the daily rituals of every astronomer is to skim through the arxiv for the latest pre-prints. Usually you get this habit when you are in grad school but then, as time goes by, it gets harder and harder to find some time to do it. It is not really a matter of procratinating it is just that you have more urgent things on your list requiring some attention. Actually, the daily ritual becomes the “oh-crap”-cry when you open you emal inbox and find out that half of your nice (and preciously rare) british sunny morning will go in fixing some boring thing that you can’t really ignore.So days pass by and you still haven’t read your pre-print abstracts to find out what scientists around the world have done recently. When I was an undergrad I subscribed to the astro-ph arxiv mailing list and then, every morning, read the email with the latest preprints and forward to myself the abstracts of those papers I found interesting. When I had enough time to read the literature I was then going to my astro-ph email folder, find out the papers I have not read yet and print them out. This may sound a little bit silly in the web 2.0 days, but it was working very well in the turn of the century. Things have changed quite a bit now and a few months ago (or maybe more…) they reached the point were the unread astro-ph emails were piling up in such an embarrassing quantity that I actually decided to google for help. I was looking for some smarter way to deal with my read and unread list of preprints. Of all the (few) available services I became really fond of the Academic Reader: a new service launched by Michael Nielsen. The Academic Reader is basically a simple RSS Feed Reader for pre-prints and printed scientific literature. The feature I like the most is the possibility to create custom feeds where you can save papers you found interesting. It may sound like a trivial feature but this is actually the reason why I am still using this service even after having tried out the much more famous Google Reader and Netnewswire (yeah, I’m a Mac user).

Pre-prints are different than normal news. Normal news become “old” very quickly therefore normal RSS readers do not provide many features to save and organise information extracted from the feeds. Unfortunately, it still takes several months for a paper being accepted for publication by the referee to appear in the journal therefore when you see interesting stuff on the arxiv you want to “save it”. This is because it hardly happens that the same day you had time to scan the pre-print archive you also have time to actually read the articles you found interesting. Being able to create any arbitrary number of personal feeds is even better because you can organise the articles according to your main interests: the same article can be added simultaneously to several feeds therefore your personal feeds are practically equivalent to the tags/categories of other RSS readers.

Even more interesting is the possibility to share your saved feeds with other people: you just have to send them the unique address at which they can browse (but not modify) your list(s) of articles and that’s it. This is really great when you have other collaborators spread all over the world and you want a quick way of sharing with them the articles you found interesting for the topic you are currently working on. The potential is even greater for education: if you’re supervising undergrads or PhD students (or aiming to) this is a great way to let then known which papers you found particularly stimulating and interesting with very little effort.

To conclude. I really think the Academic Reader is a great way to keep tabs on what’s going on the literature and share it with your collaborators. It is very easy to use, reasonably fast, it does not cost a penny and it lets you organise your readings in a straightforward way. My suggestion is that every researcher/student should have it on their bookmarks.